IOWA CITY — It was 80 degrees on a basketball media day. Highly unusual, yes, but fitting for an Iowa men’s hoops team that seems ready to let sunshine pour into Carver-Hawkeye Arena this winter.
A team without an NCAA tournament appearance in the last seven years and a winning Big Ten record in the last six has filled its fans with optimistic excitement for the coming season.
The talent, experience and depth is in place for the Hawkeyes to finally win their way into the NCAAs. But part of the buzz comes from a head coach who embraces others’ expectations instead of trying to dial them down.
“I’d prefer to talk about it on a positive level rather than try to make excuses or try to dissuade anybody of what we’re capable of,” Fran McCaffery said Wednesday. “I think we’re capable of great things.”
By his own standards, he was actually subdued for the first 20 minutes of his initial press conference of this season. But he warmed up and became the McCaffery we’ve gotten to know, tossing out “phenomenals” with abandon.
“What you’re going to see with Mike Gesell is a guy that’s got a chance to be a star. He’s in phenomenal shape. He’s making shots. He’s making plays. ... Just an amazing, amazing competitor.”
“(Adam) Woodbury has been our most impressive player since the first day of practice. He’s hungry. He’s in phenomenal shape. He has been incredibly consistent.”
“(Gabe Olaseni) had a phenomenal summer.”
Two weeks ago, McCaffery said “I think Aaron White is ready to be a superstar.” I’m not sure an Iowa coach said something that bold about a player since Hayden Fry correctly predicted Chuck Long was destined for greatness.
On Wednesday, McCaffery didn’t back down from that opinion about White, adding “There’s somebody that I think has a chance to be first team all-league and ultimately play in the NBA.”
This would all be easy to mock, were it not for Iowa being in a lot of preseason Top 25s. Plus, the players are the reason people buy tickets, and Iowa fans are buying them in larger numbers for basketball than they have in many years. So why not build up those players publicly? It’s not like White will walk around campus with the word “superstar” stuck in his head.
“I think that’s just Coach McCaffery,” White said. “He says that stuff in practice, too. We’ll be playing someone and he’ll say
‘He has the best jump shot since Ray Allen’ or something like that. That’s just how he is.”
But when asked if he could be a superstar, White didn’t demur. Which is probably the exact reaction McCaffery wants from him.
“I think I could be a superstar relative to what he’s talking about,” White said. “I’m not going to be the No. 1 pick in the (NBA) draft, but I think I could be one of the better players in the conference. If that’s what he means by it, then I agree with it.”
Former Iowa/NBA player Bob Hansen said he thinks McCaffery’s tendency to pump up players publicly “is one of his strong traits.
“It’s about getting these Iowa basketball fans on board, which he has done an unbelievable job in these three short years to completely turn it around from not being talked about to it’s what we want to talk about now.”
Iowa assistant coach Kirk Speraw says what you hear and read from McCaffery is what he’s like on the practice floor.
“The last three years, Jarryd Cole, Matt Gatens and Eric May had tremendous last halves of their senior years, playing their absolute best basketball that they can possibly play at the collegiate level,” Speraw said. “That was in large part to the encouragement they got over their time playing for Coach McCaffery.
“Generally, his approach is ‘You’re a good player. Play.’ ”
“I recruited them,” McCaffery said. “I believe in them.”
Eighty degrees on a basketball media day. Phenomenal.